Lawrence Block

block_lawrence01I was out walking recently, and I thought of an incident involving Don Westlake and Stanley Ellin and editor Lee Wright. They’re all gone now, and it struck me that, if I wasn’t the only person around who knew the story, I was probably the only one at all likely to tell it. And was it worth the telling? I decided it was.

Photo: Ichiro Okada for Mystery Scene

Once upon a time, many long years ago, Random House had the curious custom of printing, on the front flap of the dust jacket and generally immediately below the retail price, the initials of the book’s title. I have no idea who thought this up, or why he thought it was a good idea, but this is what they did, and some of us noticed it.

One who noticed was Stanley Ellin, a Random House author edited by the legendary Lee Wright, and in 1960 Ellin published his fourth novel, with the title The Winter After This Summer.

Donald Westlake and I were two others who were aware of this Random House quirk, and when we learned what Ellin had called his new book, we rushed to the store to check. And yes, by God, there it was on the jacket flap: T.W.A.T.S.

Don was a Random House author himself by then, and Lee was his editor. And on his next visit to her office he found Ellin’s novel on her bookshelf and showed her the jacket flap.

“Twats?” she said, puzzled. “Twats? Twats?”

It became abundantly clear that she was unfamiliar with the word, and thus it became Don’s duty to tell her gently that twat was a vulgar colloquialism referring to the vulva. It was manifestly less offensive than the C-word, perhaps because it sounded more silly than nasty, but it was by no means a word to be uttered in polite company.

Or featured on a jacket flap.

In the fullness of time, Don and Stan Ellin became friends, and Don confirmed what we had both taken for granted, that the title’s acronym had not been coincidental. He had indeed noted the titular initials on his other Random House books, and decided there ought to be a way to take advantage of it. And he had a novel written, and he needed a title for it, and he was supposed to be creative, so he ought to be able to come up with something.

Had it been an historical western, Sam Houston in Texas might have been a possibility. Or he could have tried—oh, never mind. The Winter After This Summer is the one up with which he came, and he decided he liked it just fine on its own merits. It had a nice literary feel to it, and seemed to go with the book. It was hard to say what it meant, exactly, but that might have been what gave it that nice literary feel. He submitted the manuscript with that title on it, and nobody ever asked him to change it.

“And it was just the right word,” he said. “Not something that would leap off the jacket at you. It just sort of lurked there.”

And, as it turned out, it had one more thing going for it: Lee Wright had never heard of it.

I remembered this story during a morning walk, and it came to me not because I was thinking of Stanley Ellin—whom I did come to know, though not well. It came to me because I was thinking of Twitter, and people who tweet all the damn time, and wondering if there was a word for them. You can probably figure out how I got from there to The Winter After This Summer.

ellin_winterafterthissummerBut I think of lots of things while I’m walking, and a few while I’m sitting still, and I don’t generally hurry to the computer to share them with the world. In this particular instance, however, it struck me that I might very well be the only person left to tell the tale. Lee Wright and Stanley Ellin both died in 1986, Don Westlake on the last day of 2008. Who else is left to remember?

The book’s still around. I just now found a first edition online for what strikes me as a very reasonable $20, and I’m sure it still says T.W.A.T.S. on the jacket flap. And others must have noticed the acronym, and made their own guesses about its presence there, but does anyone else recall the incident as I do?

And so I found myself musing that there might be other memories equally unique, and equally worth the sharing. A couple of months ago I published a book called Step by Step: A Pedestrian Memoir, in which I recounted my experiences as a walker. The book got a generous reception, and has even gone into a second printing, but a significant number of reviewers complained that it was not the memoir they would have preferred that I write. They pointed out that, however much walking I may have done, and however skillful I’d been in making it reasonably interesting to read about, I’d spent 50-plus years writing 60-plus books, and if I felt compelled to write a memoir, why couldn’t I write a memoir about that?

Point taken. And in fact I did write 50,000 words of just such a memoir some 15 years ago, and set it aside and never returned to it. I might pick it up again, or start it afresh from the beginning. But then again I might not.

Maybe, though, I could do it piecemeal. Maybe I could meander down Memory Lane once a month and write a column about what I found there. But would anyone want to publish a column like that? And would I really feel like taking that metaphoric walk every month?

Hard to say. For now, though, why not recount that one story? And, while I was at it, why not see what else I can remember about Stanley Ellin?

The first book I read of his was in fact his third novel. It was called The Eighth Circle, and it was about a private detective. In fact it was very much about the business of being a private detective, as opposed to most of the private-eye-as-knight-errant fiction that was around at the time.

The title was a reference to Dante, and when I thought of it I thought too of The Ninth Circle, a Village bar/restaurant that operated for many years on West 10th Street. The clientele ran to writers and artists and West Village types, and the bar’s gimmick was a never-empty bowl of unshelled peanuts on every table. You were encouraged to throw the peanut shells on the floor.

The proprietor sold the joint and went on to open Max’s Kansas City, where the crowd was much the same and the gimmick was now chickpeas. They were all right, I guess, but there were no shells to throw on the floor. The Ninth Circle, meanwhile, became a gay bar, and its new clientele ran to very young men and their much older suitors. I used a fictional equivalent of the place in one of the Scudder books, changed the reference point from Dante to chess, and called it The Eighth Square— “where,” one of the habitués explains, “a pawn becomes a queen.”

But I digress.

Ellin was a fine novelist—The Eighth Circle won the 1958 Edgar for Best Novel, and a later book, The Valentine Estate, was an Edgar nominee. But it was as a short story writer that he achieved the most recognition, including six Edgar nominations and two outright wins. (And there could have been more; his most famous short story, “The Specialty of the House,” was published before MWA began giving out short story Edgars.)

If Ellin’s short stories were not perfect, it was not for lack of trying. He was without question a perfectionist, and would not proceed to the next page until he was satisfied that the current page was as good as he could possibly make it. Sometimes this involved rewriting a particular paragraph ten or 20 or 30 times.

ellin_stanleyIt may be worth making the point that this was in the age of typewriters. Nowadays one can sit and tinker for as long as one has the patience, reworking a passage to one’s heart’s content before ever printing it out. Ellin would write a page, take it out of the typewriter, insert a new sheet of paper, type out another draft—and so on. For every ten-page story he wrote, he’d have upwards of 50 sheets of crumpled paper in the wastebasket.

As a result, stories took him a while. As I recall, he typically produced a single short story in a calendar year, and he invariably submitted it to Fred Dannay at Ellery Queen, who invariably published it.

Somewhere along the way, Stan and Evan Hunter became friends, and each admired the other’s work. Evan was as fast as Stan was slow, and his affection and admiration for Ellin led him to suspect that he, Evan, was writing too rapidly, that the secret to success lay in taking more time with his work.

And he resolved to do so.

It didn’t come easy to him. Sentences, paragraphs, whole scenes budded in his fertile mind, and it was natural for him to let them blossom at once upon the page. But he held himself down and reined himself in, and after a couple of weeks he was able to pick up the phone and call his new friend.

“I think it’s working,” he told Ellin. “I’ve got myself down to eight pages a day.”

You know, I can just about imagine what that must have sounded like to Stanley Ellin, for whom eight pages would constitute a decent month’s work.

My own approach to writing is closer by far to Evan’s, but it’s hard to find fault with Ellin’s approach after reading his short stories. His method strikes me as pathological, and not far removed from OCD. It’s how TV’s Monk might write a short story—but a comforting thing about writing is that it never matters how a story was written, just so it works on the page. And Ellin’s stories work superbly.

His approach to novels was rather less painstaking. He still wrote thoughtfully and carefully, and with considerable success, but he did far less rewriting. As he explained it, you couldn’t write that way and expect to finish a novel.

2008 was a rough year for crime fiction. We lost a lot of fine writers. “Thank God we’ve still got Lawrence Block,” someone wrote in this context, and I have to say it gave me a turn to read it, though I must admit I share the sentiment myself. We have still got Lawrence Block, and I’m profoundly grateful that we do.

And while I’m here, perhaps I ought to share some of the flotsam and jetsam bobbing on the stagnant pond that is my memory. An uninviting image, you say? Well, okay. In that case we won’t go there for a title for this column...

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Holiday Issue #112.